Before the First Plié – the Importance of Warm-up and Stretching
The Clam Exercise for Strengthening Turnout Muscles
A typical ballet class usually begins at the barre. However, before hitting the barre, students should go through a warm-up and stretching routine on their own if the teacher does not include that in the regular class time.
Warming up is important because it helps to prevent injuries during class. When warm, muscle fibers function better and responds readily to stimulus, thus making movements easier and more accurate. While warming up is a simple thing, it is often neglected by students, especially those who are less experienced and those who always have to rush to class after work. If you live in a warm climate, this is usually achieved by having a brisk walk to class. However, when it is cold out, you should do some jumping or hopping around in the studio (or outside if it is occupied) prior to stretching, as muscles that are not warmed up have a higher risk of being over-stretched or torn. Having some additional warm-up garments on you - such as a cardigan and legwarmers - helps to retain your body heat once you've warmed up.
Once you are warm, you can start stretching. One thing I have observed around the many studios I have danced in, is that students love to sit with their legs bent in front of them with the soles of their feet touching each other. Then they would bounce the legs so that the knees touch the floor. This kind of stretching is a big no-no. Why? First, because the bouncing action activates "stretch reflex", which means the muscle fibers would tighten in reaction to the short, sharp pull, much like the reaction of a rubber band after having been pulled - it bounces back and becomes shorter in length. This is exactly the kind of thing we want to avoid prior to a ballet class. We want the muscles to become longer and ready for action.
Secondly, the knee joint is a hinge joint, meaning that only forward and backward movements of the lower leg are allowed by the joint. When you try to hit the knee against the floor through the bouncing action, you are actually trying to torque the knee, rotating it sideways and out. This puts undesirable stress on the joint. Worse still, some people might lie on their stomach and do the same thing with their knees. This is known as the reversed frog position. This is not recommended by experts in the field of dance biomechanics/physiotherapy, for the same reason that I mentioned above regarding the true design function of the knee joint. Some people mistake this "reversed frog" stretch for a useful training for the turnout position. However, the true turnout range is masked by the force of gravity, and you are not really activating the proper muscles that are responsible for holding turnout.
Turnout is a complete subject on its own. I would recommend anybody who is interested in improving their turnout to read Deborah Vogel's book "Amazing Turnout" and to see her DVD of the same name.
For brevity's sake, I would recommend just two very important stretching exercises for improving turnout. One is the calm exercise, which you can see in the video by Lisa Howell above. The calm exercise will help you identify one of the major muscle groups for maintaining turnout - the Piriformis. It is located deep in the buttock area under the superficial muscle layer of gluteus maximus (see diagram below). Do this exercise on a daily basis and your turnout strength will be improved over the long run.
Another way to improve turnout is to lie on your back with the knees bent and the feet on the floor. Put the right foot on top of the knee of the left leg. Then wrap your hands around the back of your left thigh just above the knee joint. Slowly pull the left leg toward your belly and stay there for 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side. A variation of this stretch can be done while you are seated (thus perfect when you are working or studying). Place your ankle on top of the knee of the opposite leg and move your trunk slightly forward. Stay for 30 seconds and switch to the other side.
Because most of us sit around so much during the day, the iliopsoas muscles are usually very tight. Iliopsoas are made up of three muscles - the psoas major, the psoas minor and iliacus. These muscles are generally known as hip flexors, whose action is primarily to lift the upper leg towards the body when the body is fixed or to pull the body towards the leg when the leg is fixed. When they are too tight, our movements during ballet class will be restricted, especially arabesque, which requires the extension of the leg behind the body.
So when you stretch out the iliopsoas, you can also improve your arabesque. How do you stretch these muscles out? One of the best ways is to do the lunge. Squat on the floor with both legs bent, then extend one of the legs behind. Put your arms at shoulder width, with one of them "inside" the bent leg. This helps you stabilize your position. Stretch for one minute, and then switch side.
Another great and "lazy" way to stretch the psoas is to lie on a flat surface, such as a table or firm bed, with the side of your body close to the edge. Hang one of leg from the edge of the table or bed for three minutes, while bending the other leg and grabbing it from behind the knee. This is a gentle and passive stretch that makes use of the weight of the leg and gravity to lengthen the psoas. You should feel the stretch in front of the hip toward the groin.
The abdominal muscles are very important for core strength, which is essential in holding the ballet stance as well as in many other movements such as the arabesque and pirouettes. Many people think of doing the crunches or sit-ups to strengthen the ab. However, these exercises are for building the strength of the superficial rectus abdominis ("six pack") and not for strengthening the deepest group of ab muscles, the transversus abdominis, which are essential for core strength in ballet. The transversus abdominis wraps around our trunk from the abdominal region to the back and provides spinal stability.
One good exercise to strengthen these deep muscles is to lie on your back with your feet against the wall, so that the thighs and calves form a 90-degree angle. The knees and feet should be shoulder-width apart. Put your hands behind your and draw the belly button toward the spine. Keep your eyes firmly focused on the ceiling and do not look at the feet. While exhaling, raise your head and shoulders off the floor, just to the point where the shoulder blades are barely touching the floor, and hold for 1-2 seconds. Breathe in when you return to the floor and repeat until you are too tired to continue.
The calf muscles are extremely important in ballet as they are used constantly, not only during jumps but also when you point your feet. Some deep muscles originating from the calves are responsible for sustaining the arches of the feet. So it is important to stretch out the calves before and during little breaks in class.
My favorite stretches are the gastrocnemius and soleus stretches. These two are deep calf muscles that get to be used a lot during ballet class. Facing a wall, put your hands against the wall and the legs in a lunge position, so that one leg is bent while the other one stretches out straight behind you. Keep both feet firmly on the floor. Stay for 30 seconds and then switch sides. This one stretches out the gastrocnemius. For soleus, simply draw the hind leg closer and bend it, so that both legs are in a bent position. Stay for 30 seconds and switch sides.
Finally, the hamstring stretch. It is a popular one among students and you can see it performed in various ways. One way is to extend both legs in front of you and bend the body, using your hands to wrap around the base of the feet. Another way is to sit on the floor with both legs extended to the side. Then bend the trunk toward the floor. It's good if your trunk can get as close to the floor as possible, but don't force it if you can't. In either case, do not bounce up and down but stay in the stretched position for 30-60 seconds. My favorite hamstring stretch, though, is the runner's stretch. This is a popular stretch among athletes to lengthen their hamstring so that they are prepared for movements. It is also very useful for preparing for ballet class. Kneel on one knee and place the other foot in front of this knee. Place your hands next to the front foot. Make sure your feet are pointing straight ahead. Now lift your hip to straighten both legs, making sure that the hips are square, the heels touching the floor and both legs straight. Breathe while holding for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Release by kneeling back down to the starting position. Switch sides.
There are a whole lot of other exercises you can do but remember that warm-up and stretching are most useful if performed 20 minutes before class. If done too early, with a gap before class, then your muscles will cool down and lose their stretched length.
Another crucial thing to remember is: never overdo it. Yes, one can get injured during stretching. The muscles could be torn if they are stretched beyond their capacity. That is why it is so important never to let other people "help" you stretch. Sometimes you see students helping each other pull their legs. Occasionally teachers would get themselves involved too in a bid to help a student "go further." But this is a risky pursuit because if a person overstretches another, by the time the latter feels the pain signal, the muscles would already have been damaged. I have heard of many cases where a ballet student or even professional dancer goes out of commission for months due to such overstretching incidents. So, please, do your classmates a favor: Don't ever help them stretch!
To conclude, there is a whole science behind stretching - specific stretching for targeted muscle groups can help you achieve specific positions or movements. The more you learn about the human anatomy, the more you will be able to improve your ballet techniques and do so in a safe way.
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